The Principle of Distinction is a fundamental concept in International Humanitarian Law (IHL) that requires parties to a conflict to distinguish between the civilian population and combatants, as well as between civilian objects and military objectives. It is a key principle aimed at minimizing the impact of armed conflict on civilians and protecting them from the effects of hostilities.
According to the Principle of Distinction, parties to a conflict must direct their attacks only against legitimate military targets while taking all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects. This principle is enshrined in several international treaties, including the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, which form the core of IHL.
Under the Principle of Distinction, combatants are defined as individuals who are directly participating in hostilities, such as armed forces or organized armed groups. Civilian population refers to individuals who are not taking part in the hostilities, including civilians who have ceased to take part in the fighting due to illness, injury, detention, or any other reason. Civilian objects encompass all objects that are not military objectives, such as homes, schools, hospitals, and cultural sites.
In practice, the Principle of Distinction requires parties to take several measures to ensure compliance. These include:
- Discriminating between military targets and civilians: Parties must make a clear distinction between combatants and civilians. They must avoid deliberately targeting civilians or using indiscriminate weapons that are likely to cause excessive harm to civilians.
- Precautions during attacks: Parties must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects during attacks. This includes verifying the nature of the target and assessing potential collateral damage. Proportional use of force is also important, ensuring that the expected military advantage gained from an attack outweighs the potential harm to civilians.
- Warning and evacuation measures: Parties should provide effective advance warnings to the civilian population, when circumstances permit, to allow them to take precautions and evacuate from areas likely to be targeted.
- Protection of cultural property and humanitarian installations: Parties must respect and protect cultural property, such as museums, monuments, and places of worship, as well as humanitarian installations like hospitals and aid convoys. These should be spared from attack unless they are being used for military purposes.
Violations of the Principle of Distinction can constitute war crimes and individuals responsible can be held accountable under national and international law. International humanitarian organizations and bodies, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, play a crucial role in promoting and monitoring compliance with the Principle of Distinction during armed conflicts.